Some words

Art Monthly June 2005 - Reviews

Artists' Books

Fiona Banner, All The World's Fighter Planes 2004, Vanity Press, London, 2004, 154pp, illus, pb, edition of 500, 9548366 0 X.

This is the second artist's book made by Fiona Banner and published by The Vanity Press. Her first book, The Nam, was a sizable 2.338kg volume of 1,000 leaves of text describing shot by shot six Vietnam War buddy movies (AM207). All The World's Fighter Planes, 2004, is very different. The book is also without text, except for the residual and fractured words around the images cut-out from newspapers: on page 74 a Lynx helicopter seems to have a rotary blade made from newsprint. The book is also smaller and much less of a three-dimensional object than The Nam, which is almost an artist's multiple. And where The Nam was published by Banner herself, and in an edition half the size.

There are 154 pages of both black and white and colour found newspaper cuttings representing every type of fighter aircraft (despite the title there are helicopters as well as planes - the launch publicity interestingly has the title All The World's Fighter Jets) currently in commission anywhere in the world. An index, black on red and red on white, forms the outer covers, as if the book, like the Centre Georges Pompidou, was disclosing its structure on the outside. All the World's Fighter Planes references the genre of Jane's Fighting Aircraft series or the other war-gaming or plane-spotting manuals. But instead of sitting, pristine, on the tarmac or prancing at air shows, these aircraft come from news reports of war and other conflicts. There is no average scale to the images, and these images often invade the gutter of the pages: one fills a double-spread, another is as tiny as a squashed aphid. They fly left to right and right to left, up and down the page, some receding, others approaching us full on. On some pages there are as many as five types of aircraft. It is not a manual in any traditional sense.

If The Nam was text pretending to be image, this is doing the opposite. Text, which has been a continuous motif within Banner's work, whether in the chunky punctuation marks of her artist multiple Table Stops, The Nam or various wall-pieces, is conspicuous (and therefore present) in its absence. One wants to read the text that was next to the photograph before each was cut out: the fragmentary - 'RAF harriers were sent in to end the siege' demands full contextualization - what siege? when? what happened next? The book is therefore charged by a frustration of narrative expectations

At the book launch at Cubitt Gallery in April, Banner stated that her new book was 'all about nature'. This can be taken literally: the bird-watcher and plane-spotter (and their manuals, and their banal-listings of observations) are no doubt closely related. The names of the planes, too provide a lexicon of nature, adopting the names of birds and animals - albatross, hornet, hind, cayuse, eagle, cougar, lion cub, cheetah, aardvark, nighthawk, badger, foxbat, pelican, tiger, stallion, panther, osprey, puma, warthog, and bear - as well as climatic phenomena such as the tornado and chinook; strangely there are no rabbits, ducks and hens, and no mist and no drizzle. Even their series numbers perhaps reflect some genus and species numbering in some evolutionary classification. But it would be making a cheap point (if still valid) to suggest that the military-industrial complex has hijacked bird and animal names to make the arms industry natural.

But nature itself is under interrogation. It could be seen as a man-made construct just as technological (and minatory) as the arms industry. The landscape over which the harrier, bird or plane, hovers bears the scars of the influence of man, the plough, the game park or sheep farm. And the farm itself is full of machines for milking, ploughing or harvesting; field, drainage course and river are polluted by chemical pesticides, fertilisers and farm waste, and farm payments and set-aside subsidies are determined by satellite photography in a regime of surveillance.

This is not the sentimentalised and anthropomorphised nature of Toad, Ratty and Mole. Nature can be red in tooth and claw. Life can be Hobbesian - nasty, brutish and short. The harrier takes the rabbit, and the Canada goose kills the duck. This is where survival of the fittest rules. The military-industrial complex would propose that without the fittest armaments civilisation, whatever that is within this context, would not survive.

Banner's installation 'Parade' at the Gallerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin in 2004 included 171 Airfix fighter planes and a life size tail fin and windscreen of a Harrier, and this book clearly relates to that project. But her other obsession has been with pornography: it is tempting to read on to All The World's Fighter Planes an equation of the male-dominated high-tech world of military aircraft, it's codes of display and its vocabulary of penetration and saturation and competition in size and potency, with that of the centrefold of the pornographic magazine world on the top shelf. Sadly this pornography is on the lower shelves in newsagents, in the wars and violence reported in our newspapers.

STEPHEN BURY is head of European & American Collections at the British Library.

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